Seventy years after the Second World War the Bulgarian government is adamant in its denial that the Kingdom of Bulgaria did anything wrong in the territories – now in northern Greece, southern Serbia around the town of Pirot, and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia – it occupied as part of its deal with its ally, Nazi Germany. With great pomp and circumstance and at a considerable taxpayers' expense earlier this year Bulgaria officially marked the non-deportation, in 1943, of about 43,000 Jews living in Bulgaria-proper. The Bulgarian parliament released a carefully worded statement hailing the power of Bulgaria's civil society which prevented the planned deportations and expressed regret about what happened to the Jews in what at the time were referred to as the "new" Bulgarian territories, or "New Bulgaria." Significantly, the statement stopped short of producing an apology, eschewing to name the Republic of Macedonia and instead referring to the now non-existent Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Read between the lines, the Bulgarian statement indicates two things. First, that the establishment in Sofia vehemently and unequivocally refuses to acknowledge what war-time Bulgaria did to its neighbours. Second, as Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said last year any pronouncement to the contrary – indeed, any research into the issue at all – would be treated as "anti-Bulgarian" at best and "treason" at worst.
To corroborate its stand, the Bulgarian state had supported research to prove that from a legalistic standpoint Nazi Germany rather than Bulgaria had occupied portions of Greece, Serbia and Macedonia, and that the Bulgarians just "administered" these territories. It also spent cash on funding a TV soap designed to tell the human story of the thousands of Jews in "Old Bulgaria" who were spared the gas chambers by not being deported to Nazi-occupied Poland.
To explain in a couple of sentences what really happened over a period of several years during one of the most dramatic times in European history is of course oversimplification. However, as the facts and the timetable may not be very well known, here is a brief recap of the highlights.
Bulgaria joined the Nazi Axis led on by promises that Hitler would grant it territories in Northern Greece, Macedonia and southern Serbia that were predominantly ethnic Bulgarian. Toeing Germany's line on the so-called Jewish Question, Bulgaria implemented anti-semitic legislation modelled on the infamous Nuremberg laws. It was Germany who attacked and subordinated what were at the time the kingdoms of Yugoslavia and Greece. The Germans kept their word to an extent: they gave Bulgaria to administer the territories it considered its own, but it was decided that their full legal status would be determined once the war was over. In actual fact, parts of northern Greece, Vardar Macedonia and parts of southern Serbia were run by Bulgarian civil servants, Bulgarian army and Bulgarian police. Bulgarian was installed as the language of schooling. Decades after the event stamp collectors will gladly produce Bulgarian royal postage stamps used on letters dispatched from Kavala and Skopje as "internal" mail.
In 1943, 11,363 Jews in these territories, who had been stripped of the opportunity to obtain Bulgarian citizenship, were herded by the Bulgarian authorities into Bulgarian State Railways cattle-cars. Most of them were taken through Bulgarian territory to the Bulgarian port of Lom and shipped up the Danube to Vienna whence they would be sent to certain death in Treblinka. The term used by the Bulgarian administration to describe the deportations was vdignati, or "picked up."
There are of course many preserved documents about these events. However, for a variety of reasons no one either under Communism or during Bulgaria's transition to democracy post-1989 has delved into them. Like elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, there were official monuments to victims, but the word "Jew" was carefully avoided. If the non-deportation of the 43,000 Jews from "Old Bulgaria" was mentioned at all, it was in relation to who was to take the credit for it.
The breakthrough comes now. Historians Rumen Avramov and Nadya Daneva spent several years researching the Bulgarian State Archives to unearth a formidable collection of documents, many of which see the light of day for the first time. The result is a two-volume book of about 2,000 pages entitled The Deportation of Jews From Vardar Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and Pirot in March 1943, Documents From the Bulgarian Archives. It is financially and morally supported by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the human rights watchdog.
The book consists of a relatively short introduction that puts in perspective the events in the "new" Bulgarian territories, then lists hundreds of transcribed documents from the Bulgarian State Archives, including a full name-list of every single Jewish person who was rounded up and deported. There are applications by Bulgarians declaring themselves to be sufficiently patriotic to be granted rights over Jewish properties, diplomatic correspondence over the plans to strip Jews of Bulgarian citizenship, excerpts from diaries of officials, recollections of meetings with the senior Bulgaria clergy who stepped in mainly for those Jews who had converted to Christianity. Inasmuch it is possible through 70-year-old documents, the book presents a generally coherent picture of what war-time Bulgaria looked like and how its government and authorities handled the "Jewish Question."
The last chapter of the book consists of documents related to the so-called People's Court organised by the Soviet-backed Communists after 1944. In the subsequent trials hundreds of real and imaginary war criminals were tried for political and other crimes, as the death sentences handed down on Bulgarians, including many MPs, government ministers, doctors, lawyers and various non-Communist intellectuals, outnumbered the death sentences in the Nuremberg Trials.
The book ran afoul of the Bulgarian authorities even before it was published. A number of academic publishers, including the Sofia University Press and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Publishing House, refused to touch it. The National State Archives would not get involved. It is expected that a flurry of activity by "patriotic" historians will follow once everyone comes back from holidays.
The main trouble with Bulgaria's stance on the Holocaust is its failure to come to terms with events committed by individual Bulgarians and by the Bulgarian state that are now seen as uncomfortable. This is a refusal to face up to history is not only limited to the Jews in the occupied territories during the Second World War but also to other historical issues such as the so-called Revival Process in the 1980s, the beginnings of democracy in the 1990s and of course Communism itself (1945-1989). It indicates a fear that an acknowledgement of what Bulgaria did in Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and southern Serbia will somehow overshadow the much grander act of the non-deportation of 43,000 Jews with Bulgarian citizenship living in "Old Bulgaria." No one can deny the valour of a number of political figures, the senior clergy and many ordinary citizens who made that possible in war-time Bulgaria. But modern Bulgaria's refusal to state that nothing was really black-and-white in those turbulent times will continue to cast a doubt on its real intentions.
The book by Rumen Avramov and Nadya Daneva – sadly, published only in Bulgarian – is the first significant step in the opposite direction. One can only hope that the academic community, if not the organs of the state, will read it carefully and without prejudice.